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"All rise." The bailiff's deep voice echoed through the crowded Atlanta courtroom.
Sydney Berry took a deep breath and stepped down from the witness stand. Unfortunately, her expert testimony as a forensic artist in the murder trial of businessman Kevin Diaz wasn't over. She'd have to come back tomorrow and testify about her sessions with the eyewitness and the drawing she'd created of the suspect. The goalto get the sketch of the suspect introduced into evidence. It would bolster the eyewitness testimony to have the contemporaneous drawing in front of the jury.
If the defense attorney was able to tear apart her testimony, the prosecution's case would be severely weakened. And a guilty man likely would walk free. She refused to let that happen.
She walked out of the courtroom doors, and then the other bailiff standing outside nodded to her, indicating she was on her own. Dear God, please give me the strength to get through this. Let my testimony help the jury so that justice may be done for the murder of an innocent woman.
"Ms. Berry!" A male voice rang out down the courthouse hallway.
The last thing she wanted to do right now was deal with the press. She'd refused every media inquiry thus far, and she would do the same again today. Because of Kevin Diaz's position in the community, the local Atlanta media were having a field day covering the trial.
"No comment." She turned around and came face to face with a tall man in a dark suit and a navy checkered tie. No, he didn't look like the press. He had to be a Fed. His dark brown hair was cut short, and his eyes were a striking deep green.
"I'm not a reporter," he said. "Please let me escort you to your vehicle, and I'll explain."
She took a step, and he followed her.
She turned to him. "Who are you?"
He looked her in the eyes. "I'm US Marshal Max Preston."
Close. She had figured him for FBI. Having dealt with the FBI quite a bit in her line of work, she knew its style, and he fit it perfectly down to the gun she caught a glimpse of on his right hip. Though she wasn't accustomed to consulting for the US Marshals, they were obviously built from the same mold.
"As you can tell, I'm a bit preoccupied right now with this trial." She reached into her pocket for her business card. "Here's my card. Contact me and we can set up a consultation. But it will probably be a few weeks before I can fit it into my schedule." When he refused the card, she pocketed it and pushed open the courthouse door. The summer heat of Atlanta hit her, and she already felt her hair starting to frizz.
"I know this is bad timing, but I need five minutes," he said, following her outside.
The persistent marshal wasn't taking no for an answer. They walked down the courthouse steps on to the sidewalk.
"Really, sir, this isn't a good time."
He touched her arm. "It's important, Ms. Berry. I wouldn't come to you like this otherwise, but I really need to talk to you. Now."
Then she heard car wheels screeching loudly. Looking toward the street, she saw a dark SUV barreling down the road in their direction at top speed. Instinctively, she took a step back.
The tinted window rolled down, and the sound of gunshots exploded through the air. Before she could duck, she found herself hitting the sidewalk hard with the faint taste of blood in her mouth.
Screams and mass chaos erupted around her. As she looked up, trying to determine what had happened, she realized that the US marshal with the bright green eyes was on top of her, shielding her body with his own. He had knocked her down. Probably saving her life.
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about," he said quietly in her ear. "Are you okay?" He lifted his weight off her and his eyes scanned her from head to toe, as if looking for signs of injury.
"I'm fine." She paused, trying to catch her breath. "Wait a minute. You think those bullets were meant for me?"
He gently pulled her up off the ground and wrapped one arm around her shoulder to steady her. "Unfortunately, I do. I need to get you to a secure location. Now."
As police officers swarmed around them, he flashed his marshal's badge and was able to get through the crowd. He pulled one of the officers aside. "Neil, we need to talk."
"What happened here?" the officer asked him.
"Drive-by shooting. Approximately five shots fired. Two men, driver and passenger."
"Did you get a visual on either?"
"Negative, but they were in a black Chevy SUVmodel year late nineties. I'm assuming it was stolen, and they're probably dumping the vehicle as we speak."
"You're probably right about that."
"Look, Neil, call me if you need anything else, but right now I need to get this witness out of here. When it's safe, we can provide official statements. Please keep me in the loop. You have my info."
The officer nodded at Max and then looked at her closely. Recognition spread across his face. He must have been following the Diaz trial. "Of course. Whatever you need, Max."
Max took her arm and led her down the street away from the courthouse. "I should try to explain why I came here today. I think you're in more danger than you could know."
"With that lead in, I guess you already know me pretty well."
"Yes, I do, Ms. Berry."
"Please, call me Sydney. After you saved my life I feel like the formalities are a bit much. Can I call you Max?"
"So, what's going on exactly?" He gently touched her back and guided her to his car, which he'd parked in the lot down the block from the courthouse. He opened the door, and she got into the nondescript gray sedan. Only then did he start to explain.
"I used to work in the gang unit at the FBI." He paused. "But I came here today to warn you that there was chatter amongst the gang networks about you. Have you ever heard of the East River gang?"
"Yeah, they're pretty notorious." She wasn't ready to provide her specific knowledge of the East River gang to this man she just met. Even if he had saved her life, she thought it better to proceed with caution. That was the way she lived now.
"Well, I put two and two together and I think the East River gang has decided to go after you because of your testimony here in the case against Kevin Diaz."
"Kevin Diaz is a businessman with multiple thriving companies. What connection could he possibly have to the East River gang?" She kept her voice steady even as her mind started to play out the implications of this new piece of information.
"Kevin's cousin is Lucas Jones, who just happens to also be one of the power players in East River."
She looked over at him. "Wow. I had no idea they were related." She paused. "And now you think they're coming after me because of the family connection?"
"I'll be honest with you. I'm one of the only ones who believes that Lucas Jones would take action for his estranged cousin. Most of my former FBI colleagues believe that the two of them aren't on speaking terms. But I do and that's why I'm here. I had a feeling that East River would retaliate against you and today's events only confirm my hunch."
"Are you sure?"
He kept his eyes on the road. "I felt pretty strongly about it before, but you were almost gunned down in broad daylight outside the courthouse. So, yes, it's a threat I take seriously. The US Marshals' office is taking it seriously."
"What does all of this mean?"
"It means that for the time being you'll be in my protective custody. It was one thing when you were just testifying in a murder trial against Kevin Diaz. But circumstances have changed. If you're a target of the East River gang because of your testimony that impacts everything. First and foremost your personal safety. When you agreed to testify as an expert witness for the state, it wasn't under these circumstances."
She took a second and looked out the window as they drove. "Is all this really necessary?"
"Most people are thankful for the protection, Ms.
I can take care of myself, she thought. "It's Sydney, remember? And it's not that I'm not thankful. It's just that I'm having a hard time processing all of this. I'm not exactly used to being shot at when testifying in a major trial. Not to mention being told that I'm going to have my every move shadowed by someone I just met. I just need a few minutes to think it all through."
He nodded. "If you decide to continue to testify tomorrow, I'll make sure you are able to safely arrive and finish your testimony. Then we'll determine the next steps after that."
"What do you mean if? Why wouldn't I testify? I already committed to it."
"That was before you knew about the danger to your life. The prosecutor will have to talk to you about the risks involved. And then we'll need to lie low until there's a proper threat assessment conducted on the risk to your life from the East River gang."
She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "Wait. Are you talking about putting me into the witness-protection program?"
"That would be premature at this juncture."
"But you're not ruling it out?"
"I never rule out any course of action. Doing so is the easiest way to get you or someone else killed. But the lead prosecutor and state's attorney are going to be fully briefed on the current security issues, and they may seek that route for you. Especially after what just happened."
"Unbelievable." She lived a solitary life so she didn't have to worry about a family, but this marshal was throwing her a curve. Granted, he was just doing his job, but that didn't mean she felt comfortable with him taking over. She was a private person. She'd only trusted a man once before, and she shuddered thinking about him.
"I know this is difficult for you. If it makes you feel any better, I'll do everything I can to keep you safe and try and give you as much space as is reasonable."
"I guess I understand. But how could the state not have known about this connection to the East River gang?"
"Since there isn't any proven contact or links between the two cousins, I don't think the state believed this was a relevant issue. Lucas thought Kevin sold out by working in corporate America. Or at least that's the story that's on the streets."
"But you're skeptical?'
"Yeah. I'm not doubting that there's friction between the two of them, but I don't buy for a minute that Kevin Diaz is completely on the up and up. The FBI is investigating his operations trying to find any other ties to East River or organized crime. However, it's not their top priority. Like I said, I was the one driving that charge, and now that I'm gone it's less of a focus. Regardless, in my opinion East River made clear today that they don't want you to testify."
"But I've already started my testimony."
"And they don't want you to finish it," he shot back. "You've only gotten through the preliminary questions. Nothing you've said so far will hurt Diaz. It's the rest of your testimony that would be problematic for him. So for tonight we have to be on lockdown. I'm taking you to a safe house in the area."
"I'll need something to wear for court tomorrow."
"Don't worry. All of that will be taken care of. We have a fully stocked safe house, and if need be we can send out for any additional necessities."
She leaned her head back against the seat and closed her eyes for a second trying to steady her ever escalating nerves. She liked to be in control, and right now things were spiraling quickly into a place she didn't like to be. Lord, I need You now.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yes. How much farther until we reach our destination?"
"It's just outside the city, so only a few more minutes."
"Sorry to sound impatient."
He glanced over at her. "You were just shot at. You have every right to feel a mix of emotions. I'm actually quite impressed at how you've held yourself together."
She wanted to change the subject and take the focus off of her. "Are you from around here?" she asked.
"I'm from Chicago, but I've lived all over working for the FBI. For the past few years I worked out of the Atlanta field office. And now as a marshal, I've been assigned to the Northern District of Georgia."
"I like living in Atlanta," she said.
The car suddenly swerved, stopping her from continuing her thought. What was going on?
"Hold on," he said loudly.
She gripped the console.
Then he slammed on the brakes.
Max's day was going from bad to worse. If he hadn't gotten to the courthouse when he had, his witness might have been killedgunned down in broad daylight. And now a man stood waving his arms right in front of his car in the middle of the road.
Max had to swerve to keep from hitting him. But it was close. And now his senses were screaming that something was terribly off. They were winding through the suburbs on the way to the safe house. What was this man doing?
He thought of Sydney. How much more could she handle today? She certainly hadn't signed up for being a target of the East River gang. His years in the FBI gang unit had shown him just how ruthless a group like East River could be.
"Are you going to get out and see what he needs?" she asked.
They sat in the car, not moving, as the man approached. Max estimated him to be in his forties, approximately six feet tall and two hundred pounds. He definitely didn't look like a damsel in distress.
"What's wrong?" she asked Max.
"I don't like this."
"He probably needs help." She reached over and grabbed his arm. "We can't just ignore him."
"Stay in the car, okay?"
Before she could answer, he checked his sidearm and then opened the door.
And that's when the man lunged forward. The attacker was fast, but Max was faster.
Sydney screamed, but Max stayed focused on the threat in front of him. But when a gunshot went off, he instinctively turned to look. And there was Sydney wrestling another man with a gun.
He didn't have time to do a thorough analysis of the situation, so he quickly launched into action. When his attacker landed a blow that connected hard with his jaw, pain shot through his head. But it wasn't enough to lay him out. There was no way was he going to lose his first official witness as a US Marshal. With a swift uppercut he made contact with the attacker's face. Calling on his martial arts training, he followed with a precise kick to the ribs. His assailant landed on the ground with a resounding thud.